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Posts tagged ‘Food and Agriculture Organisation’

Tall Tales

I’m convinced that one of the reasons I became a historian was early exposure to the Indiana Jones films. (For all non-academics, they’re the best and most accurate depiction of academia in any cultural medium ever.)* My favourite remains Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – surely the greatest film ever made – and particularly for the bizarre and appalling feast to which Jones and his sidekicks are subjected at the Pankot Palace. I watched it again last night:


There are, of course, enormous problems with the film: it was banned in India for its depiction of Indians and Hinduism, and it can hardly be credited for providing an accurate portrayal of the subcontinent’s colonial politics during the 1930s. For me, the film’s campness and cartoonishness save it – like Tintin, it is barely on nodding acquaintance with reality.

But it does offer a useful way of understanding the relationship between food and colonialism during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Pankot Palace feast is inedibly disgusting: from ‘Snake Surprise’ (a python slit open to reveal writhing, live snakes) and giant scarab beetles, to eyeball soup and monkey brains for pudding.

The scene cuts between our heroine’s increasingly panicked response to the meal and a tense, yet polite conversation between Jones, a British officer, and the juvenile Maharajah’s smoothly suave Prime Minister. Jones raises the question of the implications of the Kali-worshipping Thuggee (yes, really) cult for the local villagers – something which he argues is a greater threat to British rule in that region of India than was the 1857 Rebellion.

It’s all utterly ridiculous, obviously, but the film’s point is that the Palace’s enthusiasm for human sacrifice and the enslavement of children – we later see that the Maharajah’s wealth is mined by thousands of shackled child labourers – is linked in some way to its appalling eating habits.

For nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonialists such a view would have made perfect sense. During this period, British imperialism was justified, increasingly, on the grounds that it brought the light of civilisation to the dark and frightening jungles and deserts of Africa and Asia. (The residents of these jungles and deserts – these communities, nations, and empires – begged to differ on this point, but their views were hardly deemed important at the time.) This ‘civilising mission’ empowered imperial agents, from officials to missionaries, to ‘civilise’ colonial subjects.

Importantly, this process extended beyond conversion to Christianity and – for boys, at least – education. The domestic space was a key site for the creation of civilised subjects. In Britain, the home was a marker of respectability: the furnishings, cleanliness, and efficient running of the home by servants were all signs of a family’s good morals. Food and dining helped to establish class status as well.

For missionaries attempting to civilise colonial subjects, living in the right way was as important as thinking in the right way. Converts were encouraged to wear Western dress, live in square – not round – houses, and adopt British eating habits. Not only were they to eat three meals a day, but these were to be modelled, as far as possible, on what the middle class would have eaten in Britain, using British ingredients and British recipes.

In her study of missionaries working in the Belgian Congo, Nancy Rose Hunt argues that the progress of the Congolese living on the mission station was measured in terms of their willingness to swop local dishes for steak and kidney pudding, rissoles, and fruit cake. She notes the ‘evolutionary theme[s]’ evoked by the missionaries to emphasise the progress of their protégés, from ‘darkness to lightness, savagery to civilisation, heathens to Christians, monkey stew to roast beef.’ Roast beef is on the same side as Christianity and civilisation, assuming, thus, a moral value.

This discourse around civilisation, domesticity, and eating exercised an enormous effect on the lives of colonised peoples. Such was its strength that settlers in India and Britain’s African colonies insisted upon eating versions of familiar dishes – despite the differences in climate and available ingredients. EM Forster wrote in A Passage to India (1924):

the menu was: Julienne soup full of bullety bottled peas, pseudo-cottage bread, fish full of branching bones, pretending to be plaice, more bottled peas with the cutlets, trifle, sardines on toast: the menu of Anglo-India. A dish might be added or subtracted as one rose or fell in the official scale, the peas might rattle less or more, the sardines and the vermouth be imported by a different firm, but the tradition remained: the food of exiles, cooked by servants who did not understand it.

The new, educated middle classes in Africa ate British-style food to signify their civilised, sophisticated status. In Nervous Conditions (1988), Tsitsi Dangarembga uses food to illustrate the differences between Tambudzai – the slightly educated young daughter of a large, poor family in rural Zimbabwe – and the middle-class, British-educated aunt and uncle with whom she lives to go to school. Her aunt offers her a spoon and a mound of sadza when she has difficulty eating a ‘western’ meal using a knife and fork. Tambudzai is amazed by the cake, biscuits, and jam she is offered at teatime – all luxuries at her parents’ homestead. Accustomed to drinking from an enamel mug, she misjudges the heat of her tea in the china teacup and burns her mouth. Food plays a vital role in her transition from ‘peasant’ to ‘a clean, well-groomed, genteel self.’

This was, then, a powerful discourse. However strange and illogical this narrative about food, civilisation, and identity may seem to us, similar narratives continue to be constructed by many Westerners to understand Africa, and their relationship with a continent whose complexity and diversity they can’t – or won’t – seem to understand.

In the current narratives about the continent, Africans are depicted either as innocent, perpetually suffering victims or as vicious, murdering monsters. The success – if that is to be measured by the number of times a video is watched on YouTube – of the extraordinarily misguided Kony 2012 campaign demonstrates the extent to which people consider these narratives to be true.

This annoys me, both as an African and as someone who believes strongly that in the age of Google, ignorance of a whole continent is totally unacceptable and inexcusable. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this stereotyping has an impact on American and, to some extent, European policy towards the continent. Tracing a shift in American attitudes towards Africa from around 2000, when concern about the AIDS epidemic was at its height, Kathryn Mathers writes:

Suddenly there were no conversations about new democracies in Africa, or investment opportunities; the potential consumers were represented as too sick to labour, let alone to shop. This became the burden of caring Americans whose consumption practices can give a sick child in Africa ARVs or provide mosquito nets against the ravages of malaria.

It’s for this reason that she is so critical of the reporting done by Nicholas Kristof on Africa. Kristof, a popular New York Times journalist, has the power to shape American attitudes towards the continent. But he tells a story which persistently denies the agency of Africans:

This model does not question the causes of poverty, either general or specific, for the people it is meant to help. It does not pay attention to what people are doing for themselves or ask what they need. It is founded on a story that treats people as if they were just part of a natural landscape washed ashore by forces that aid agencies do not participate in or have any control over. It offers solutions, often expensive and technological, and therefore measurable, that inevitably cannot be sustained or make any genuine long term change in the lives of poor people around the world.

There is very little difference between Kristof’s view of Africa and that of nineteenth-century missionaries: the continent – populated by suffering and poweless, but essentially angelic, women and children – is the white man’s burden.

So what are the implications of such simple, and incorrect, narratives about Africa? Alex de Waal suggests that the attention that Kony 2012 drew to Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army may well detract from more nuanced and better targeted policy making around Africa. In an analysis of how three discourses have impacted on foreign intervention in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Séverine Autesserre writes:

The dominant narratives have oriented international programmes on the ground toward three main goals – regulating trade of minerals, providing care to victims of sexual violence, and helping the state extend its authority – at the expense of all the other necessary measures, such as resolving land conflict, promoting inter-community reconciliation, jump-starting economic development, ensuring that state authorities respect human rights, and fighting corruption.

She adds:

Even worse, because of these exclusive focuses, the international efforts have exacerbated the problems that they aimed to combat: the attempts to control the exploitation of resources have enabled armed groups to strengthen their control over mines; the disproportionate attention to sexual violence has raised the status of sexual abuse to an effective bargaining tool for combatants; and the state reconstruction programmes have boosted the capacity of an authoritarian regime to oppress its population.

This has profound implications for dealing with famine and food shortages in parts of Africa as well. Johan Swinnen and Pasquamaria Squicciarini point out that NGOs, think tanks, and policy makers need to think through the implications of the recent spike in the price of food for food security. Making the point that while high food prices increase the likelihood of poor people going hungry, they also benefit poor farmers, Swinnen and Squicciarini demonstrate that as recently as 2005, Oxfam and the Food and Agriculture Organisation were blaming low food prices for hunger. They write: ‘it can be hard to find a relation between underlying analytical work and the policy messages sent by communications departments.’

The problem with an approach which argues that only one factor – like food prices – causes hunger is that it can actually worsen the situation. For instance, consistently advocating an end to import tariffs and export subsidies in rich countries – ostensibly to benefit farmers in poor countries – could actually cause the price of food to increase.

The recent announcement that one billion people are hungry is equally problematic. Not only have these statistics been queried, but they ignore the fact that ‘[n]ew studies suggest that the number of hungry may have declined, possibly by many millions, despite the food price increase.’ This simple narrative about hunger and povety – which slots into pre-existing notions about the helpless African poor – actually undermines further investigation into the complex causes of hunger.

So why the disconnect between policy and research? Swinnen and Squicciarini suggest that in order to raise funds and to influence governments, NGOs tend to use – rather than challenge – the narratives offered by the media on poverty, Africa, and food security.

This is why stories and narratives are so dangerous. As Swinnen and Squicciarini conclude:

If the objective is to assist those who are hurt by price changes, this is no excuse for simplistic messages.

*Not really.

Further Reading

Sources cited here:

Séverine Autesserre, ‘Dangerous Tales: Dominant Narratives on the Congo and Their Unintended Consequences,’ African Affairs, vol. 111, no. 442 (January 2012), pp. 1-21.

Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions (London: The Women’s Press, [1988] 2001).

EM Forster, A Passage to India (London: Penguin, [1924] 1989).

Nancy Rose Hunt, ‘Colonial Fairy Tales and the Knife and Fork Doctrine in the Heart of Africa,’ in African Encounters with Domesticity, ed. Karen Tranberg Hansen (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992.)

Kathryn Mathers, ‘Mr Kristof, I presume? Saving Africa in the Footsteps of Nicholas Kristof,’ Transition, no. 107 (2012), pp. 15-31.

Johan Swinnen and Pasquamaria Squicciarini, ‘Mixed Messages on Prices and Food Security,’ Science, vol. 335 (27 January 2012), pp. 405-406.

Other sources:

Jean and John L. Comaroff, ‘Home-Made Hegemony: Modernity, Domesticity, and Colonialism in South Africa,’ in African Encounters with Domesticity, ed. Karen Tranberg Hansen (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992.)

Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (London and New York: Routledge, 1995).

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Justice, not Philanthropy

This week José Graziano da Silva, the Director General of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, announced that the famine in Somalia has ended. A combination of good rain, the most successful harvest in seventeen years, and the effective dispersal and deployment of food and agricultural aid means that most Somalis now have adequate access to food. But this is likely to be a temporary reprieve: it’s uncertain if food stocks will last until April, when the next rainy season begins and the main planting is done.

This already fragile situation is compounded by Somalia’s complicated politics: the southern part of the country is still controlled by the Islamist group al-Shabaab, which banned the Red Cross from operating in the area this week, and has disrupted food supplies in the past. Tellingly, around half of the 2.34 million people still in need of humanitarian assistance and seventy per cent of the country’s acutely malnourished children are in southern Somalia.

The end of the famine is no cause for celebration, then. Thirty-one per cent of the Somali population remains reliant on food aid, famine looms in another three months, and there are the after-effects of the famine to cope with: the plight of the refugees scattered around Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya; and the generation of malnourished children.

It’s estimated that between 50,000 and 100,000 people died in this famine, half of them children.

Clearly, something isn’t working.

And as one famine comes to an end – or, at least, a halt – in East Africa, another one seems to be developing on the other side of the continent. Niger, and, indeed, its neighbours Chad and Mali, is both drought- and famine-prone. Even in good years, it struggles to feed itself. Fifteen per cent of the world’s malnourished children live in Niger. But poor rainfall at the end of 2011 and a spike in global food prices means that the country’s population faces famine.

Niger’s last famine was in 2010, when the World Food Programme provided food to 4.5 million people. But things seem to be more hopeful there than in Somalia, and largely because Niger has a government which functions relatively well. Realising that it needs to store its food supply properly, provide jobs so that its population can afford to buy food, and also limit the growth of its population, the government of Niger is introducing measures to improve people’s access to food. One new piece of legislation will make it compulsory for children to remain in school until the age of sixteen, partly because of the strong link between girls’ education and declining family size.

Somalia’s weak and ineffectual government can’t do anything to prevent famine from occurring there again. With all the will in the world, there is no way that Somalia’s food crisis will end until its political situation stabilises.

The comparison of Niger and Somalia is particularly useful for demonstrating the extent to which responses to famine – from the media, NGOs, charities, and other international organisations – are heavily politicised. Reporting on the Niger famine in 2010 was fairly muted and I’ve only seen a couple of references to its most recent food crisis. Somalia, though, never seems to be out of the news. The reason for this is depressingly simple:

Niger, the large West African country whose name is best known for being just one unfortunate letter away from a pejorative racial insult, has a few terrorists, but not enough to really matter. Elements from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb wander across Niger’s border every now and then, taking advantage of the large desolate areas which characterise most of the country, but for the most part its contribution to the War on Terror is minimal.

Al-Shabaab is loosely affiliated to al Qaeda and the United States fears that the Horn of Africa could prove to be a useful base for planning future terrorist activities. It probably also helps that Somalia has media-friendly pirates too.

So all famines aren’t equal. All famines are complicated. Indeed, the whole question of ‘hunger’ is complex. I was amused to note that Monday marks the beginning of the WFP’s Free Rice Week. The project encourages individuals to play a game on a website. For every correct answer, Free Rice Week’s sponsors donate ten grains of rice to the WFP. The aim of the project is to ‘provide education to everyone for free’. Hmm…. ok – it includes some basic, if vague, information about ‘hunger’. And also to ‘help end world hunger by providing rice to hungry people for free.’

Huh?

So this is going to end world hunger by giving all hungry people rice?

Seriously?

Other than the fact that it would be as – or even more – effective for the project’s sponsors and participants to skip the cute competition and simply donate rice to the WFP (or, even better, to a local feeding scheme or food bank), this really isn’t going to end world hunger.

I know that this seems like a soft target to shout at, and, really, there’s nothing wrong with donating food or money to the WFP, but my annoyance with projects and competitions like this one, stems from the fact that they’re dishonest. There is no way that Free Rice Week is going to end world hunger. It’s a pity that the WFP sees fit to inform people that by taking part in it they’re contributing to solving the food crisis.

In fact, I think that Free Rice Week and other, similar projects actually contribute to the problem.

Firstly, they fudge the meaning of ‘hunger’.  Over the past year or so, we’ve become familiar with the FAO’s horrifying statistic that one billion people go hungry every day – that one sixth of the world’s population does not have adequate access to food. But there are problems with this statistic:

it is not the only way to measure food insecurity. Over the years, it has been criticised on many fronts: for the poor quality of underlying data; for the focus on calorie intake, without consideration of proteins, vitamins and minerals; and for the emphasis on availability – rather than affordability, accessibility or actual use – of food. Some say we’d be better off focusing on improving household consumption surveys, opinion polls, and direct measures of height and body weight.

These figures need to be accurate because they ‘are also used to help guide where to send foreign aid, track progress towards international development goals, and hold governments to account for promises made.’

Moreover, it glosses over the fact that there are many kinds of hunger: the extreme events – the famines – which are the products of natural disasters, conflict, and state collapse; the hunger which is the product of poor diets and an inability to buy or access enough food; and the hunger in developed nations. In Britain and the United States, the numbers of people now reliant on food stamps and food banks has spiked during the recession.

Secondly, these projects ignore the fact that responding to various kinds of hunger requires far, far more than throwing money at the problem. In fact, the WFP’s website even acknowledges this: ‘People can go hungry even when there’s plenty of food around. Often it’s a question of access – they can’t afford food or they can’t get to local markets.’ Famines in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries occur as a result of a collapse of distribution systems, usually caused by conflict or a crisis in government. Famines tend not to happen in stable democracies. The WFP must receive money for food aid – that is absolutely non-negotiable – but long-term change, as we’ve seen in the cases of Somalia and Niger, can only occur once stable, effective governments are in place. No amount of free rice is going to end famine in Somalia.

In other cases of hunger, it’s clear that people are simply too poor to buy food: employment, education, good health systems, and higher wages will go far in remedying this situation. But even then, we have to accommodate the choices that poor people make when spending their money. In an article for Foreign Policy’s special edition on food last year, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo took a closer look at the lives of the ‘one billion hungry’ and came to some interesting conclusions:

We often see the world of the poor as a land of missed opportunities and wonder why they don’t invest in what would really make their lives better. But the poor may well be more sceptical about supposed opportunities and the possibility of any radical change in their lives. They often behave as if they think that any change that is significant enough to be worth sacrificing for will simply take too long. This could explain why they focus on the here and now, on living their lives as pleasantly as possible and celebrating when occasion demands it.

We asked Oucha Mbarbk [a Moroccan peasant] what he would do if he had more money. He said he would buy more food. Then we asked him what he would do if he had even more money. He said he would buy better-tasting food. We were starting to feel very bad for him and his family, when we noticed the TV and other high-tech gadgets. Why had he bought all these things if he felt the family did not have enough to eat? He laughed, and said, ‘Oh, but television is more important than food!’

We need to take people’s choices about how they spend their limited funds, more seriously.

Thirdly, by focussing on raising funds, the WFP transforms itself into a philanthropic organisation. Donations of food and other forms humanitarian aid are absolutely necessary to alleviating food crises, but they won’t end these crises – or end ‘hunger’ (whatever we may mean by that). In an excellent article for the Guardian, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter argues:

our global food system…is in crisis. Last year’s famine in the Horn of Africa, and the current woes in the Sahel, are the surface cracks of a broken system. These regional outbreaks of hunger are not, as such, extreme events.

Beyond semantics, this is a crucial distinction. In viewing these events as extreme and unexpected, we fail to acknowledge the regularity and predictability of hunger. This flaw is fatal, for it means failing to acknowledge that the food system itself is broken. It means failing to build readiness for persistent famine into international development and humanitarian policy. And it means waiting until people starve before doing anything.

Food aid doesn’t address the deeper, structural problems underlying the food crisis. It doesn’t consider bad governance; the impact of food speculation on rising food prices; and agricultural efficiency, particularly in the light of climate change.

By appealing to people to donate money to fund their response to food crises – which could have been avoided – the WFP and others cast hunger as something which can be remedied with old-fashioned philanthropy. It’s certainly true that philanthropic organisations can do immensely good work – like reducing rates of polio and malaria in the developing world. But this doesn’t necessarily solve the problems which give rise to these crises:

the poor are not begging us for charity, they are demanding justice. And when, on the occasion of his birthday, a sultan or emperor reprieved one thousand prisoners sentenced to death, no one ever called those pardons justice. Nor is it justice when a plutocrat decides to reprieve untold thousands from malaria. Human beings should not have to depend upon a rich man’s whim for the right to life.

Precisely. The world’s poor should not be dependent on the goodwill of wealthy people who have the time and inclination to play games on the internet.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Futures

One of the funniest articles I’ve read recently was Robert Webb’s account of his experience writing a weekly column for the Daily Telegraph. He describes – for gleeful readers of the New Statesman – his battles with the commentators on the newspaper’s online edition. The internet’s equivalent to the ‘green Biro brigade’ of usually right-wing newspaper letter-writers, these ‘Ghouls’ as, Webb calls them, used the Telegraph’s comment function to heap scorn and ridicule on Webb.

These guys love Britain so much that they all seem to live in Gibraltar. Their ‘comments’ were characterised by a suspicion of nuance, a tin ear for irony, a conviction that political correctness and Stalinism were the same thing, and a graceless irascibility of the kind we are now expected to find endearing in Prince Philip. There was also an assumption of intellectual superiority, rather cruelly undermined by a vulnerability to cliché and an inability to spell.

The problem was not that they disagreed with Webb, but that their comments were aimed solely at reminding him what a ‘worthless bastard’ he was.

I hadn’t realised that these internet trolls had moved beyond the places I’d usually expect to find them – news sites, mainly – and on to food sites as well. In a post which seems to have gone viral this week, Shauna James Ahern of Gluten Free Girl explains the extent to which she’s been subjected to internet bullying:

Every day, there is some nasty, vituperative comment on a post, something I skim quickly then delete. It could be comments about my husband (‘He’s obviously retarded. Look in his eyes. There’s something wrong.’) about our life on Vashon (‘Oh that’s right, everything is perfect on  your fucking ISLAND.’), about our food (‘That looks like dog vomit. Why does anyone pay you to do this?’), and mostly about me (my weight? my writing? my hair? my mere presence in the world? take your pick).

I want to make this clear: criticism and debate are absolutely vital – even on food blogs. I have no truck with writers who believe that any form of critical thinking is ‘mean’ or ‘negative’. But I have no time whatsoever for bullies. I had a small brush with one (or two?) this week after publishing a post critical of the Toffie Food Festival’s Menu magazine. A few commentators using dodgy Hotmail accounts and a suspiciously identical IP address sent comments which were fairly personal and meant only to tell me and the world that my ideas are stupid.

But a decade in academia has helped me to grow rhino hide for skin and it takes more than a few bullies to stop me. So troll who lives at IP 41.133.175.4, you know who you are. As do I.

Troll at IP 41.133.175.4 did, though, ask a good question, and one which is worth answering. He (or indeed she) responded to my point that the authors of Menu have a profoundly problematic conception of food as a consumer product – like jewellery or clothing – which can be used and thrown away at whim, by asking: ‘where do you live where you don’t have to buy food’?

Yes, dear troll at IP 41.133.175.4, you’re quite right: food is a product or commodity which has to be bought (unless, of course, you grow or rear it yourself). But there’s an important difference between food and bed linen, perfume, cutlery, or clothes, for example. Only one of those products is absolutely essential to human life – only one has a significant impact on people’s incomes and the ways in which they live. Only one can cause ordinary people to protest when prices become too high.

Food is, then, is bought by consumers and treated as a consumer product even though it’s significantly different from other products. Our understanding of food as a consumer product is a relatively recent phenomenon: it’s only a century or two old, and linked strongly to the industrial revolution and mass production, as well as the development of a very powerful advertising industry.

Why should we care about this? Given that the mass production of food allowed greater numbers of people to eat better and more cheaply than ever before, surely these processes could only be considered a Good Thing. There is nothing inherently wrong with the industrialisation of food production as long as it is environmentally sustainable, humane to animals, respects workers’ rights, and produces safe and uncontaminated food – which, as the industry functions at the moment, is not always the case.

Moreover, as I wrote last week, this conception of food as a consumer product means that we understand food differently. Food moves from being something we associate primarily with nourishment to being a commodity which has the same meaning for consumers as other, less essential goods. This means, for example, that they are more willing to throw away large quantities of food. As the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation reported a few months ago, the average consumer in the West wastes 95 to 115kg of food every year – and wealthy countries are responsible for half of the total amount of food wasted every year.

There are many other implications for seeing food as a consumer product – not least the foodie worship of food since the early eighties – and I’ll consider these more carefully in the next few weeks. For the moment, I’d like to take a quick look at food speculation.

Of the many causes of the current global food crisis, food speculation is the most contested and seems to be the most complicated to understand. As the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier de Schutter as well as Oxfam and other organisations have argued recently, the deregulation of commodities markets in the West during the mid-nineties have had catastrophic implications for food prices.

Let me explain: farmers have long traded in food futures to secure their incomes. Farmers protect themselves against bad harvests by selling their produce in advance to traders. They use the profits they make in bad years – when they have less to sell – to protect themselves against future losses. This works well for traders, who do particularly nicely in good years. Writing about the United States, Frederick Kaufman explains how well this tightly regulated system worked:

The result: Over the course of the 20th century, the real price of wheat decreased (despite a hiccup or two, particularly during the 1970s inflationary spiral), spurring the development of American agribusiness. After World War II, the United States was routinely producing a grain surplus, which became an essential element of its Cold War political, economic, and humanitarian strategies – not to mention the fact that American grain fed millions of hungry people across the world.

But things changed at the end of the twentieth century. Partly because of intensive lobbying from hedge funds and banks, like Barclays, governments in the West deregulated commodity derivatives markets. Banks and investors became interested in trading on the commodities market – once the preserve of specialists like Glencore – when bankers at Goldman Sachs (yes, they really do their best to be the embodiment of venality) devised new investment products which included speculation in food futures. Investors which hadn’t before been involved in the commodities markets, like pension funds, were, then, willing to play the futures markets.

As a result of this, food – grain, cocoa, fruit, rice, and meat – can be traded in exactly the same way as other commodities, like gold, timber, and coal. Brett Scott writes:

The controversy can be broken down into two separate issues. Firstly, are financial players in commodity derivatives markets causing derivatives prices to disassociate from what the price ‘should be’ if it were reflecting the fundamental balance of supply and demand in the underlying commodity? Secondly, does such a disassociation in futures prices get transmitted into the real price of food people end up paying?

The answer from the UN and a range of other charities is a definite, ringing ‘yes’. Irresponsible banks are driving up the price of food, they argue. John Vidal cites two well-known examples of food speculation causing price spikes:

Last year, London hedge fund Armajaro bought 240,000 tonnes, or more than 7%, of the world’s stocks of cocoa beans, helping to drive chocolate to its highest price in 33 years. Meanwhile, the price of coffee shot up 20% in just three days as a direct result of hedge funds betting on the price of coffee falling.

But what role does speculation play in causing food prices to rise more generally? This is more difficult to pin down, as Scott implies. De Schutter argues, convincingly in my mind, that even if speculation was not responsible on its own for causing the spike in food prices in 2008, it was a major contributing – and new – factor. I think it’s worth quoting him at length:

a number of signs indicate that a significant portion of the price spike was due to the emergence of a speculative bubble. Prices for a number of commodities fluctuated too wildly within such limited time-frames for such price behaviour to have been a result of movements in supply and demand: wheat prices, for instance, rose by 46% between January 10 and February 26, 2008, fell back almost completely by May 19, increased again by 21% until early June, and began falling again from August. The 2008 food price crisis was unique in that it was possibly the first price crisis that occurred in an economic environment characterized by massive amounts of novel forms of speculation in commodity derivative markets.

The particular area of concern is speculation in derivatives based on food commodities. A study conducted by Lehman Brothers just before its bankruptcy revealed that the volume of index fund speculation increased by 1,900% between 2003 and March 2008. Morgan Stanley estimated that the number of outstanding contracts in maize futures increased from 500,000 in 2003 to almost 2.5 million in 2008. …the changes in food prices reflected not so much movements in the supply and/or demand of food, but were driven to a significant extent by speculation that greatly exceeded the liquidity needs of commodity markets to execute the trades of commodity users, such as food processors and agricultural commodity importers.

Food speculation is a manifestation on a very grand scale of a shift in thinking of the value and significance of food: here, food is simply another commodity to be bought and traded, often very lucratively. We know the futures are useful and important to farmers, but the unregulated speculation of food means that food prices are no longer linked to what people can afford to pay. When the UN and other organisations call for a greater regulation of commodities markets – to a return, to some extent, to the derivatives trading of the twentieth century – they are also pointing to the fact that food cannot be understood in the same terms as other commodities and consumer goods.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

It Sticks in the Throat

Disclaimer: this post concerns the organisers of next weekend’s Toffie Food Festival and Conference. At the beginning of July, I noticed that they were beginning work on a food magazine and contacted them about writing for it. We had a brief, yet friendly, correspondence which ended when I realised that I wouldn’t be able to afford the R1500 (about £150) ticket for the Festival. (I see that they’re now selling day tickets to the exhibition and market for R50 each, which is excellent.) So please believe me when I say that this post isn’t a case of sour grapes. Also, it contains some swearing.

This week’s post was supposed to be about food, eating, and ideas around ‘authenticity’ – inspired by an article from Prospect about the end of postmodernism – but I find myself suddenly enraged and can’t think about anything else. This month’s Woolworth’s Taste magazine comes with a free copy of Menu: a publication which accompanies next weekend’s Toffie Food Festival and Conference in central Cape Town.

Menu lists Cape Town’s 167 best dishes, and includes short essays on a range of subjects: interviews with local restaurateurs, aspects of southern African cuisine, and the inevitable peon to Elizabeth David. It begins relatively uncontroversially with the usual range of comments of shopping malls having killed our ‘food culture’ and the need to encourage an interest in local cuisines. I’m annoyed by the ignorant, rose-tinted view of the past which informs this kind of thinking, but there’s nothing fundamentally wrong about a desire to improve the way people eat. No, my problem is with this:

This issue of Menu magazine compiles some of the best food experiences in the city. The visuals show food dropped on floors at home and in the street, because the best pizza always lands on the floor.

Yes, I know: ‘the best pizza always lands on the floor.’

I’ll wait while you compose yourself.

And so each of the photographs in the magazine depicts food – blobs of ice cream, crisps, bread, salad, and barbequed chicken – dropped on the ground in Cape Town.

A magazine dedicated to promoting the best restaurants in Cape Town, to disseminating information about food in South Africa, and, presumably, to encouraging its readers to eat better – a magazine produced in the midst of a global food crisis where people are starving to death and overthrowing their governments because of a lack of food – includes photographs of wasted food.

This magazine draws attention to the fact that it wasted food in order to create pretty pictures. Seriously?

ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MINDS? How was this ever supposed to be a good idea?

Aside from the pretentiousness of the writing and the silliness of the concept, it’s absolutely appalling to promote an awareness of eating good food by throwing it away. I do realise (and hope) that relatively small amounts of food were wasted during the photo shoots, but this isn’t really the point. The magazine seems to suggest that there’s something poetic – or, rather, given its overriding aesthetic, hip – to waste food.

Did you know that we waste a third of our food supply? According to a report published in May by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, roughly 1.3 billion tonnes of the world’s food – food produced for human consumption and which is perfectly good to eat – is wasted or lost. In poor nations, this waste is usually the result of poor infrastructure, where inadequate storage, processing, or packaging facilities fail to keep food fresh and uncontaminated. But in wealthy countries, food waste – and industrialised and developing nations waste roughly the same amount of food (about 670 and 630 million tonnes respectively) – is produced by ordinary people.

The average consumer in the West wastes 95 to 115kg of food every year, most of it fruit and vegetables. In sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia, and southeast Asia – the least developed parts of the world, in others words – this amounts to an average of only 6-11kg of food. People who are poor tend to buy less food and will ensure that they throw away as little of it as possible.

And the proportion of food wasted by Westerners has only increased over the past few decades. Tristram Stuart writes in Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (2009):

A survey in Britain during the 1930s found that household food waste comprised only 2-3 per cent of the calorific value of food that entered the home. In 1976 waste was apparently only 4-6 per cent, and similar studies in America during the 1960s and 70s found wastage levels of about 7 per cent.

We are now at a stage where rich countries waste 222 million tonnes of food per year – which is only slightly less than the annual food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes).

At a time when demand for food is only increasing, it’s ludicrous that so much food goes to waste. As the FAO’s report notes, one of the most effective ways of reducing

tensions between the necessary increase in consumption [of food] and the challenging increase in production, is to also promote food loss reduction which alone has a considerable potential to increase the efficiency of the whole food chain. In a world with limited natural resources (land, water, energy, fertilizer), and where cost-effective solutions are to be found to produce enough safe and nutritious food for all, reducing food losses should not be a forgotten priority.

So what are the implications of throwing away so much food? It means that the limited amount of land available for agriculture is being exploited needlessly. It means that the greenhouse gasses emitted during the production, processing, and transportation of food are done so in vain.

We know that hunger and starvation are not necessarily caused by a lack of food, but, rather, by people’s inability to access it. Drought – increasingly the product of climate change – and food speculation all cause the price of food to increase. Wasting food also contributes to this. As a recent study suggests, there is a strong link between this year’s increased incidence in political violence in the Arab world and sub-Saharan Africa and high food prices.

The FAO makes a number of suggestions of how we can reduce waste, and one of them is encouraging Westerners and members of the middle classes in developing nations not to waste food.

These are people who can afford to throw food away. And these are the people who read Menu magazine. The problem with including a celebration of dropped and wasted food is that it indicates a profoundly problematic attitude towards food. Stuart explains:

Throughout the developed world, food is treated as a disposable commodity, disconnected from the social and environmental impact of its production. Most people would not willingly consign tracts of Amazon rainforest to destruction – and yet that is happening every day.

Even if the authors of Menu mean well, their magazine seems to forget that food is not another consumer product like designer clothes or jewellery to be artfully arranged and photographed.

If they really do want to change they ways in which we eat, it’s not enough just to encourage people to eat local cuisines and buy their meat from independent butchers. Not only do we need to throw away less of our food, but we must understand the ecological, social, and even political implications of what we choose to eat – and throw away. The decision to waste food in the name of cool sticks in the throat.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 20.07.2011

How will fracking impact on our food supply?

Partly because of its emphasis on increasing yields, the Gates Foundation, in partnership with the evil empire Monsanto, is pushing genetically engineered crops in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, and Malawi.

Seven food and drinks trends in the US for 2011.

Famine looms in the Horn of Africa. This is why.

Sarah Lohman cooks ‘temporal fusion cuisine’ and keeps an amazing website called Four Pounds of Flour. Here she plots changing tastes in America.

Chefs go wild about Nathan Myhrvold and Chris Young’s Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.

Tom Philpott discusses the link between catastrophic flooding and industrial agriculture.

Consider corn.

There’s recently been a gloriously self-important spat between (some) South African food bloggers and food writers. This is Mandy de Waal’s excellent article for the Mail and Guardian which started it, and this is the hilariously bonkers response from one blog.

Jay Rayner considers the latest research into the relationship between meat consumption and cancer.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation reports that the world wastes or loses 1.3 billion tons of food per year – that’s a third of the total supply.

Donald Paul for the Daily Maverick discusses South Africa’s food security.

How to make Cornish pasties. (And flapjacks – crunchies to South Africans.) And in praise of sandwiches.